We ate breakfast in the hotel restaurant, very nice, and once again the owner, Xuan, inquired if I was interested in taking an overnight tour with him. We would ride our bikes, and he his. I kept thinking about it. As we were heading south the weather was getting a lot warmer than it had been in the south.
We met up with the Australian couple, Josh and Samantha, outside the hotel to follow them on the tour. My bike would not start! Try as I might the darn thing just would not start. A number of locals were checking me out on this beast of bike (yes all 250cc of beast
) and then I realized what the problem was - I neglected to turn the gas from "off" to "on". Very embarrassing for this big biker dude
Off we went following Josh and Samantha. Josh was on the back of a male guides bike, Samantha on the back of a female guide's bike. Our first stop, about 10kms out of town, was to be rowed up this river. Each small tourist group is assigned to a boat rowed, primarily, but local ladies. Off we went upriver. Totally, absolutely, awesome. Immediately we confronted just the coolest scenery, a lovely river with high cliffs alongside and limestone karst hills covering the landscape.
One sight after another, it was a photographers paradise. There were locals working fishing nets on the shoreline, and this man was herding ducks!
We continued upstream. There were lots of other tourists, mostly local school kids and some Chinese, very few Westerners. The Chinese (and perhaps some Vietnamese tourists) were taking photos of us! Western celebrities!
We found this really funny - we are taking photos of the locals and they are taking photos of us. It was kinda fun having the other tourists on the river nearby, really did not bother us or detract from our enjoyment. Of course the local school kids, lots of them, were totally enchanted by us and we were exchanging "hellos" all morning. Vietnamese kids love to practice their "hello" on tourists. Really it was a lot of fun.
Josh and Samantha, lovely Australian couple
In his boat on the river, The Orchid Seller:
After about one hour we reached the turnaround point and started heading back. We again passed through the low caves we had passed going upriver. This fellow was sitting on his motorcycle alongside the river:
Mountain goats were standing on the steep mountain slopes paralleling the river. It was all so chill!
After a couple of hours we returned to the launch point and followed Josh and Sam to some Buddhist temples revered by the Vietnamese:
Inside one of the temples:
The keeper of the temple:
Then we rode about 10 kms to an area that looked like a state or national park, very few tourists though. There were some nice ponds and many interesting statues. The main reason to come here though was to climb the 500 steps that take you high up on the karst mountain overlooking the river we had recently rowed.
Some scenes from that area:
This cat statue was located in one of the many caves dotting the park:
At the base of the 500 step climb was this dragon figure:
While Zach the billy goat bounded up the 500 steps, and they were very steep, Josh, Sam and I trudged slowly up. There was a French-speaking couple from the Indian Ocean island of Reunion climbing alongside us carrying a young boy. Eventually we reached the top and were greeting by this stunning scenery:
The river we had rowed up earlier:
Facing back the other direction, the plain behind us, rice paddies dotted with limestone karst hills:
We descended to the bottom and walked around the park. More awesome scenery:
Finally walking back to our bikes we encountered this clever goat who had figured out how to remain well fed:
Following the guides we visited some more temples, passed more rivers where the locals were rowing much the same as we had earlier that morning. Finally, after some truly great sights, we made our way back to Ninh Binh. Our bikes had not been cleaned since we left Hanoi so Zach and I sought out a Rua Xe (bike wash) where for $1 each our bikes were nicely hand cleaned. We then returned to the hotel and out back did a little maintenance, tightening our chains, especially on Zach's bike. By now we had learned his chained needed frequent tightening.
I talked with Zach about staying one more day and going on an overnight tour with Xuan. Relative to the costs we were incurring on our travels he was asking a lot of money, but in American terms it was really not bad at all. It would dent our budget though. Zach was against it. He had been traveling for 8 months on his own, and we had by now toured the rugged north of Vietnam on our own with no need for a guide. I had never imagined using a guide on the trip. But something about Xuan, and the commendations in his client book, gave me pause. I just had a feeling that maybe we should take this chance, just this once. After all, all we had to lose was some money which would soon be forgotten anyway. But if it was a good experience...... So I told Zach we needed to juggle our dates to allow for this extra day with Xuan and we signed up to have him accompany us into a region to the west of Ninh Binh. It was an area not mentioned in any of the guide books or ride reports I had read, seemed to be completely off the tourist track. And the commendations said it was incredible. So we set it up with Xuan to depart at 7:30 the next day after breakfast.
Total distance for the day - about 50 kms (30 miles)